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Pregnancy Cravings: When You Gotta Have It!

Pregnancy and food cravings go hand in hand; 3 experts offer suggestions for healthy cravings.
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"During pregnancy a woman can crave -- and eat -- things like dirt, laundry starch, crayons, ground up clay pots, ice scraped from the freezer. As bizarre as it seems, the desire can be overwhelming," says Peter S. Bernstein, MD, MPH, medical director of obstetrics and gynecology at the Comprehensive Family Care Center of Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.

While pica -- eating non-nutritive substances -- is not well understood, Bernstein says sometimes these cravings represent a nutritional deficiency, particularly a need for iron, though he says there are no studies to prove this is always the case.

In some instances, Bernstein tells WebMD that the cravings can also have a cultural or ethnic component, one which actually fosters eating these dangerous nonfood items.

"The craving is there, and then fulfilling it is encouraged within certain cultural communities," says Bernstein.

Among the most dangerous aspects of pica is the consumption of lead -- particularly when women eat dirt or clay. This can lead to infant and child developmental problems with low verbal IQ scores, impaired hearing and motor skill development. Other research has shown an increased risk of learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders in infant exposure to lead before birth.

"I've had women and their babies develop lead poisoning from eating dirt during pregnancy; the neurological damage can be overwhelming," says Bernstein.

If you do find yourself craving any nonfood item, experts say see your doctor immediately and be tested for iron deficiency anemia or other nutritional deficiencies such as zinc, which has also been linked to pica.

For most women, pregnancy food cravings fall into just a few categories: sweet, spicy, salty, or occasionally sour. Surveys show only a scant 10% of pregnant women crave fruits and veggies during pregnancy, with a desire to gobble down foods such as peaches, blueberries, or broccoli not high on the "must have" scale.

And in fact, that's one reason doctors sometimes raise a red flag about pregnancy cravings.

"My biggest concern is when food cravings replace good nutrition -- in other words, a woman will fill up on the foods she craves and skip the nutritious foods her body and her baby really need," says Rebarber.

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